The Private Speech of Preschoolers

The Private Speech of Preschoolers

I love the joke about the old man who goes to see a psychiatrist and complains that he has been talking to himself a lot lately.  The psychiatrist explains to him that talking to oneself is very common once one reaches a certain age and that it is nothing to worry about.  “But Doc, you don’t understand,” replies the old man, “You have no idea how annoying I am!”

You may have noticed that your preschooler has begun routinely talking to herself as well.  And while you may not find it particularly annoying, you may find it somewhat alarming.  After all, unless one is indeed elderly, talking to oneself usually is considered a sign of mental illness.  But be assured that this “private speech” is not only normal during the early years, it actually is quite beneficial for the young child.

The primary purpose of private speech is to help the preschooler plan and guide her behavior as she learns new skills.  Think about a child learning to tie her shoelaces.  After receiving instructions and assistance from her parents, she attempts to complete the chore on her own.  As she goes through the step-by-step procedure she has been taught, she simply recites the steps out loud.  “First you make the big loop, then you make the little loop, then you bring the big loop around, etc.”

The question is why she feels the need to do this recitation out loud.  The answer lies in the “egocentrism” of the mind at this point in development.  A preschooler is not able, nor is she inclined, to get outside of her own head, put herself in someone else’s position, and view a situation from the other person’s perspective.  Consequently, it never occurs to her that anyone else is listening when she engages in private speech.  And even if she is aware that others are present, she doesn’t consider that what she is doing may be intruding on the consciousness of someone else.  She only cares that she is able to plan and guide her behavior in a way that is maximally forceful and clear.

In other words, private speech constitutes one of those typical phases that eventually will pass and over which mothers and fathers should not fret.  Meanwhile, parents might want to note that it does provide excellent opportunities for them to monitor what is going on in the mind of their child.  Since she often is repeating instructions she has been given, one can readily tell if she has absorbed the lessons properly or if she is in need of correction.